My topic in our series on issues of concern to Christians is ‘Helping the Poor’.
Roy Hattersley wrote a column in the Guardian following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. It was titled: ‘Faith Does Breed Charity’ with the sub-heading ‘We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings’. He wrote:
The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.
Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.
Christian believers, he argues…
are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, [and] replace the sodden sleeping bags… Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.
End of quote. There’s nothing new about this. Right from the early days of the Christian faith the church community has become known for its compassionate service and generosity towards those in need.
For instance, in the Second Century Christians would collect unwanted children, left on rubbish dumps to die, and bring them up themselves. Justin Martyr, in his ‘Apology’ addressed to the Roman Emperor, said:
But as for us [that is, Christians], we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the act of wicked men; and this we have been taught so that we should not do anyone an injury and so that we should not sin against God.
From two centuries later there is a remarkable letter from the Roman Emperor Julian who tried to revive paganism but found that Christianity was on the rise. He wrote to a pagan priest:
It is disgraceful that… while impious Galileans [that is, Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!
The wellspring of that kind of compassion in action and the heart of what we need to hear is there in 1 John 3.16-18. You might like to turn to that before we go any further. We heard this read earlier but let me read those verses again:
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
Now my three headings are three simple questions. First, who are the poor? Secondly, why should we help the poor? And thirdly, how should we help the poor?
First, WHO ARE THE POOR?
There seems to be a whole mini-industry around the issue of the definition of poverty. But let me try and keep it simple. Surely the bottom line is this: the poor are those who lack what they need to survive and thrive.
To survive and thrive we have needs in a range of different areas of our lives. We know almost nothing about the boyhood of Jesus. But I find very striking the description of his development that Luke gives, to sum up those years. This is Luke 2:
52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.
That is, we could say, he grew and developed intellectually (wisdom); physically (stature); spiritually (in favour with God); and socially (in favour with men). And to that extent Jesus is a model for us and the children of our community and of the world. We need all that is necessary for us to survive and thrive intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially. And when those needs are not met, people experience spiritual poverty, or social and emotional poverty, or educational poverty, or physical and material poverty.
The most severe form of poverty is spiritual poverty. And the great danger of spiritual poverty is that people don’t necessarily realise that they are poor. That is the warning that the risen Jesus gave to the Laodiceans. He tells them (this is Revelation 3.17-18):
17 You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich…
And of course those who are materially poor can be spiritually rich. So Jesus says to the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2.9-10):
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich! … 10 … Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
The statistics of material and social poverty globally are overwhelming as we know. Such poverty has, perhaps, three main causes: firstly, oppression or injustice; secondly, natural disaster or calamity; and thirdly, personal sin.
Oppression is any unjust social condition or unfair treatment that brings or keeps a person in poverty. Examples might be delayed or unjustly low wages; court and government systems weighted in favour of the powerful and wealthy; and loans with extortionately high interest rates.
Natural disaster or calamity includes crop failures, disabling injury, vicitimisation by criminals, floods, storms and fires. So in the news at the moment are the devastating floods affecting South Asia. It is reported:
Almost 20 million people have been displaced as some of the worst floods for years have hit a wide swathe of northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Roads have been washed away and hundreds of villages have been cut off by swollen rivers… Almost 200 people have died in the floods in the last few days. In Bangladesh thousands of families are on the move in search of higher ground.
In terms of personal sin, a life of laziness and problems of self-discipline can bring about poverty. So Proverbs 6.10-11:
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
And Proverbs 23.20-21:
20 Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, 21 for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
And expensive tastes and luxury-seeking can be a reason for economic trouble (Proverbs 21):
17 He who loves pleasure will become poor…
And poverty is not just a global concern. It is a national concern for us as well. Absolute poverty must surely take priority, and yet relative poverty is real as well. A Rowntree Foundation report published in July says:
A new way of comparing poverty and wealth trends across Britain shows inequality has reached levels not seen for over 40 years… the public believes the gap between rich and poor people is too large. Researchers… found that households in already-wealthy areas have tended to become disproportionately wealthier and that many rich people live in areas segregated from the rest of society. At the same time, more households have become poor over the last 15 years, but fewer are very poor.
So they are arguing that there has been an increase in relative poverty, but some decrease in absolute poverty in the UK. That relates to material poverty, but perhaps the greater issue for us is social and educational poverty. Much that is important does not relate to how much money we have either individually or as a society. Robert Kennedy once said:
Gross National Product… measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages… [and he goes on] It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living…
And yet there is a massive economic cost when these things go wrong as they are in our society today. The recent report by Iain Duncan Smith argues that social breakdown costs the UK £102bn a year - with crime taking up £60bn, family breakdown £24bn and educational under-achievement £18bn. The diagnosis does not seem to be in dispute among the politicians, even if the prescription is.
Who are the poor? They are those who, for whatever reason, don’t have what they need to survive and thrive.
Secondly, WHY SHOULD WE HELP THE POOR?
For a start, we should help the poor because we ourselves need help. You could call it enlightened self-interest. Do as you would be done by. That is the fundamental principle of how we should behave towards others that Jesus taught. Jesus said (Matthew 7):
12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
How would we want to be treated if we found ourselves in poverty? We need as far as possible to put ourselves in the shoes of the poor and act accordingly. That might be difficult for us, but it might not – we all experience poverty of one sort or another at one time or another, even if we’ve never had to worry how the next holiday is going to be funded, never mind where the next meal is coming from.
Why should we help the poor? Because of the character of God and the example of Jesus. Jesus became poor to lift us out of our poverty and make us rich. 2 Corinthians 8:
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
And that is the character of God worked out in practical action. God cares about the needs of poor and acts to meet those needs. Psalm 113.
7 He [The Lord] raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
7 He [The Lord] upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free,
8 the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
And God’s care for the poor is not only something we benefit from ourselves – though we do. Nor is it only something for which we should give God praise – though we certainly should. It is also an example that we are to follow in our own lives. So, as we heard in 1 John 3.16:
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
And Paul says the same thing in a different way in Philippians 2.4-5:
4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
And that’s also why it can never be an adequate response to the needs of some of the poor to say that they are poor in great part because of their own behaviour; and that they therefore deserve to be poor; and that we therefore have no obligation to help them.
Some people are materially poor by their own fault. But Jesus did not look at us in our spiritual poverty, heading for eternal death and hell, and respond by saying that we got ourselves into this mess (which we did) and that we deserved what was coming to us (which we did). No, he laid down his life to save us. How we help the poor should inevitably be affected by why people are poor. But those who are what used to be called the ‘undeserving poor’ (which in the end is all of us) still need help.
So we follow the example of Jesus. But we also should help the poor simply because it is God’s command. There is that remarkable passage in Deuteronomy 15. Listen to parts of verses 4-11:
4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God…
7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. 8 Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. 9 Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will towards your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.
And that Old Testament principle and command is clearly carried over into the New. Jesus said (Luke 6.30-35):
30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners', expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
And Paul carries that through in Galatians 6.9-10:
9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
There is an obvious priority that we should give to the poor who are our brother and sister believers around the world. They are our family.
But we are “to do good to all people”. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. Everyone bears the image of God – however marred. G.K. Chesterton said:
People are equal in the same way pennies are equal. Some are bright, others are dull; some are worn smooth, others are sharp and fresh. But all are equal in value for each penny bears the image of the sovereign, each person bears the image of the King of Kings.
The help we give should be tailored to the need. And in practice no individual or church can help everyone. But in principle there should be no one who we regard as beyond our sphere of responsibility.
Why should we help the poor? Perhaps most challenging of all is the fact that if we don’t, we are not true believers. In the context of telling us to treat the poor well, James says (James 2.14-17):
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But there is encouragement in those verses as well as challenge. Because the implication is that when our faith in Christ is real, we will care for the poor, because we find ourselves wanting to care for the poor, because the Spirit of Jesus lives within us. And, though imperfectly, that is our experience, isn’t it? Again and again I see that desire to help the poor grow in people as their faith grows. And again and again I see that desire put into action.
Thirdly, HOW SHOULD WE CARE FOR THE POOR?
It needs to be said that spiritual poverty undoubtedly has priority over other forms of poverty. Nothing can be more important than the eternal destiny of people, and their need for eternal life through faith in Jesus. Tim Chester, previously research and policy director for Tearfund UK, writes:
We see all kinds of needs around us. They are immediate and evident. But the priority of the eternal future means that the greatest need of all of us is to be reconciled to God and so escape his wrath. And this is the greatest need of the poor. I remember hearing a Christian who had worked among the famine victims of the Biafra conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960s. He spoke of how their greatest concern as they faced death was to be told about life after death. People often say glibly ‘hungry stomachs don’t have ears’. But the hungry stomachs of the Biafrans were all ears for good news in the face of death.
This, though, is a matter of both/and not either/or. We shouldn’t choose between meeting spiritual needs and meeting other kinds of need. We are to keep evangelism central, and we are to work at both.
That will mean caring for needs and also contending for truth and justice in the public square. When God’s ways are embedded in the life of a nation, everyone benefits. When they are discarded, everyone suffers. So Christians need to politically involved.
In the Bible we will find principles to follow but not detailed policies prescribed for our own situation. So we have to give space for disagreement on policy – on the best way to help the poor. What the Bible leaves no room for doubt over is that we should help the poor.
So that will mean work at caring for the poor as individuals, and also as a church. The church is at the heart of God’s strategy for caring for the poor of the world. That fact is now at the heart of the strategy of Tearfund, the evangelical relief agency. Let me quote Matthew Frost, the chief executive of Tearfund:
… what we are looking for is locally-led, community based, sustainable organisation, that is shot through with values that are all about compassion for the poor and justice. That’s what we’re looking for at the local level, and at Tearfund we’re pretty clear that you should look no further than the local church, because that’s exactly what the local church is – that compassionate, justice-driven organisation that is community owned, that will be there in 100 years after all the aid agencies have come and gone… That’s why our new vision is to see 50 million people released from material and spiritual poverty through a worldwide network of 100,000 local churches… That is the way to deal with economic poverty in a sustainable way.
We need to be one of those churches. There is much that already happens, and that is encouraging.
Two weeks ago I was interviewing up here Mohan Seevaratnam who is a missionary doctor at the Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Colombo Sri Lanka. They work to give affordable healthcare to the poor of Sri Lanka. We help to support that work.
Ian Garrett is in Africa. Next week he’ll be leading some training at St Philip’s Community Centre, Mburi in rural Kenya. For many years we’ve been in partnership with them, helping to build the centre and develop the staff.
In May Saul Cruz spoke here at JPC. He leads the work of Armonia among the poor of Mexico City. Over the years quite a number of people from JPC have been out and helped with that ministry.
I recently received a prayer letter from a young man who was until recently a student at JPC. He is now working with an aid organisation in the war-torn and dangerous Democratic Republic of Congo. He wrote:
Last Saturday I went to visit a feeding centre on the outskirts of Bukavu to drop off some firewood, this centre supports 60 young children who have been orphaned by the war… The kids don’t live in the centre they just go there for food, which they get six times a week (they used to only have three meals a week). Three Congolese women run the centre, they don’t receive any money they just do it out the kindness of their own hearts. It was a surreal experience - on one hand upsetting that these children who lived so close to me and so many charities, were receiving so little, but then on the other I had to realise that this was enough to give them a good chance to survive, and actually if this is the situation so close to all this infrastructure you can start to realise the problems outside Bukavu. When I start to hear how bad the infrastructure is outside Bukavu and how hard it is to get supplies to the different sites because there are no passable roads I start to realise the extent of the problems here and how it is that 1000 people are dying every day.
Those examples just scratch the surface of what happens through JPC. But we need more and more social entrepreneurs with a vision for what God can do through us and the drive to make things happen and the perseverance to see things through in the long term.
All of this help for the poor costs money of course. I thank God for the generosity that he inspires in this church, and for the tens of thousands of pounds each year that are given to help the poor. That grace and gift of giving is one in which we need to grow and grow, as we follow the example of Jesus.
And what is more, we need to cultivate simple kindness. Tim Chester strikingly says:
Perhaps the most powerful tool in Christian social involvement, a tool with the potential to make a huge impact on our communities, is the humble teapot.
He tells how many problems of poverty can be met in some measure by simple human contact. “It can simply involve sharing a cup of tea”, he says. And he quotes a Marxist who had no sympathy for Christianity and who thought that a lot that the church did was a waste of time. But this Marxist said…
… if you took away all the kindnesses and neighbourly acts that Christians do – visiting the sick, shopping for the housebound and so on – then this community would fall apart.
Let that be true of us. After all: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.